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Having a parent in prison or jail can be a monumental trauma for a child. Struggles to understand a lengthy separation, feelings of abandonment, unanswered questions regarding the whereabouts and safety of their parent and the lack of contact can leave permanent scars on a child. To further complicate matters, these children often carry the shame and stigma projected from a society that lacks understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system. Understandably, these children can develop emotional and behavioral problems that lead them down a path of delinquency, and later, adult criminality.
In January, 1999 Assisting Families of Inmates launched a unique school-based program addressing the needs of children impacted by parental incarceration. At that time the Milk and Cookies Children’s Program was located at Blackwell Elementary School, Swansboro Elementary School, and the Sacred Heart Community Center. The program sites are all located in the city’s Southside where the population of children with an incarcerated parent was known to be one of the highest in Richmond. Additionally, at that time, families who resided in the Blackwell community had the lowest median household income ($11,400), experienced the highest crime rate (based on police reports) and were the least educated (only 28% had a high school diploma) in the City of Richmond. Blackwell was also the location of a community revitalization project called Hope VI that displaced most public housing tenants.
The goal of the MAC Program is to provide assistance and support to these children and their caregivers by improving the families’ access to much needed resources and encouraging their children’s school success. Our goal is accomplished through strategies that address both the needs of the children and their caregivers. A core strategy includes support groups in the school that help children better understand and cope with the parent’s incarceration. Groups are organized by age and meet regularly for seventeen weeks and then decelerate to biweekly meetings for the remainder of the school year. The MAC staff works proactively with school personnel and community agencies to locate specialized programs and services that will increase children’s chances of succeeding. Individualized attention to the caregivers facilitates a better understanding of the needs of their children. Many of the Milk and Cookies caregivers are grandmothers who need supportive services to help them cope with the unexpected responsibilities of raising their grandchildren. The MAC Program also provides assistance with transportation, in-home counseling and support, and advocacy with other service providers. Plans remain underway to initiate a specialized parenting group for the MAC caregivers.
The Milk and Cookies Program is co-facilitated by two Program Specialists at each school site. Current school sites include Chimborazo, Fairfield Court, Swansboro and Woodville Elementary Schools. The Program works with other community partners such as Communities in Schools, the Micah Initiative, and Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, to ensure children receive needed services.